4/24/202311 min read

. Free Will & Inner Peace

Factors on which our level of free will depends.

Every intelligent human being has free will. Free will is a part of the human psyche. We all, however, differ as to the level of our free will, depending on the following:

a) Genetic factors account for a large part of our character traits, especially at an early age, before other influences have a chance to take effect.

b) Our upbringing or conditioning is very important. This includes education. It cannot be emphasized enough how important a good Jewish education is for the survival of the next generation of vibrant Jews.

c) Environmental effects and influences. These include peer pressure and influences from role models. Rambam states in Chapter 6:1 of Hilkhot De’ot:

The natural tendency of a person is to be drawn after the thoughts and deeds of his friends and society. Therefore a person must associate with wise people…as King Solomon states: ‘A person who associates with the wise will become wise…’ and as the first verse of Psalms 1:1 state: ‘Praised is a person who did not follow the advice of evil people and didn’t stand in the presence of delinquents…’

We absorb a tremendous amount from the environment around us. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to examine these environmental factors, especially when raising children, and also for ourselves.

In Jewish law, if two witnesses accuse someone of a capital offense, if that person is found guilty, these same witnesses are also the executioners. The reason for this is that they were the most influenced, since they witnessed the crime first-hand, the sight of which left a tremendous impact on them and may have lessened their sensitivity. To counteract any of the influence they may have received from witnessing the crime, they must be the ones to eradicate the evil.

In Exodus 32:7, Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the written and oral laws of the Torah when God informed him that he was to go back down to the people, as they had corrupted themselves by building and worshipping a calf. God told Moses that He would destroy the people and would make Moses the progenitor of a new nation. Moses defended the Jews successfully and God accepted his prayer to forgive the people.

Moses then descended the mountain with the two tablets of stone written by God in his hands. Moses was reunited with his disciple Joshua who heard a loud noise from the direction of the Israelite encampment below. They surmised as to the origins of the noise. It was not until they got within sight of the camp that they realized that it was the sound of idolatry. Moses was so angry that he smashed the tablets. We can see from this that sight and first hand experiences leave much more of an impact than just hearing about an episode. Moses did not get angry before he actually witnessed with his own eyes the depraved behavior of the people.

The Torah, at the beginning of Exodus (2:21), relates Moses’ sojourning with Yitro in the following way: “Vayoel Moshe....” The Talmud, Nedarim 65a, explains that Moses made an oath to his father-in-law. There is some speculation as to the content of this oath. The Midrash states that the oath was that he would raise one of his children in the faith of Yitro, his father-in-law, who was then an idol worshiper. Rabbi Dessler then asks the obvious question. How could the great and holy Moses take such an oath? He answers that Moses never really took an oath, nor made any commitments, but the fact that he lived so long with his father-in-law, the idolater, was as if he took an oath, for he virtually guaranteed a tremendously bad impact on his children.

This signifies the power of the environment. Slowly, one adapts to the situation one is in and becomes morally and ethically numb. Recall what happened to Lot, nephew and brother-in-law of Abraham. How could Lot, who was raised in Abraham’s house at a very high moral and ethical level, go to live in Sodom? The answer the commentaries state was his great love for money. The Torah tells us (Genesis 13:10; 11) that he saw the land was verdant and good for cattle. He was willing to go and live in Sodom, confident in his ability to resist temptation, because that was where he could earn the most money. Two of his daughters intermarried with the inhabitants of the land and were destroyed with them. Lot himself not only adapted to their evil ways, but eventually was appointed a judge over them. One of the good traits that he still nurtured was hospitality. This is what saved him in the end.

No-one can be sure of his or her ability to resist temptation, or the blandishments of society around them. Every morning, in the blessings we recite from the beginning of the prayer book, we beseech God to “Keep me far away today and always from an evil person, from the evil inclination, from an evil friend and evil neighbor, etc.” We also pray to God not to test us. The commentaries say that an evil neighbor is much worse than an evil friend, because the neighbor is nearly always present and the influence is insidious. Whereas we can choose our friends, we cannot always choose our neighbors. However strong our personalities are, we are all influenced to some extent by other people around us, by the neighborhood we live in, by the programs we watch on TV, by the magazines and periodicals we read, and the radio stations we listen to.

The Talmud, Berachot 29a, stresses the idea that people should not trust in their innate propensities for good versus the power of the environment. “Don’t trust yourself until the day of your death.” As proof of this statement the Talmud cites the story of Yochanan, the High Priest, reputedly the holiest and most respected person of his time who served God in the holy temple for eighty years and eventually succumbed to heresy.

Free Will

The Torah in Genesis (1:27), states that human-beings were created in the image of God. Rambam comments that, among all living creatures, humans alone are endowed with morality, reason and free will. Only humans can know and love God and can hold spiritual communion with Him. It is in this sense that the Torah describes humanity as having been created in the Divine image.

Rabbi Hanina in the Talmud Berachot 33 makes an exceptionally powerful statement: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven.”

In running our lives, many of our choices are in our hands. The Almighty God in His wisdom gave us the greatest gift possible, freedom - freedom to choose and even to disobey Him.

It is customary that on Friday nights and on the eves of festivals ‘Yigdal’ is sung in the Synagogue after the evening service. ‘Yigdal’ consists of Rambam’s codification of the thirteen principles of faith, which was set to a tune by one of his students and which forms the basis of our belief system.

In the ‘Yigdal’ we mention that God rewards a pious person according to his or her conduct and punishes an evil person according to his or her misdeeds. Without the gift of free will, we would all be comparable to robots or machinery. You don’t reward your computer for performing a task, neither would you punish it for not performing. It has no other choice. The fact that we believe that God rewards and punishes ultimately means that we believe in this concept of free will.

Rambam declares that all humans have free choice. He then explains one of the notable exceptions, the case of Pharaoh. The Torah tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This is taken by the Rambam to mean that God removed Pharaoh’s freewill and his ability to repent. He goes on to explain that freewill should not be taken for granted. God can and does remove the ability to make different choices from a person whom He wants to utterly destroy, as was the case with Pharaoh. Pharaoh had crossed a line in terms of his barbaric behavior toward the defenseless Israelites in his kingdom. God did not allow him to repent.

The Bet Halevy, however, has a different perspective on the issue of why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. After witnessing the power of the first few plagues, Pharaoh was overwhelmed. He found it impossible to continue to resist God’s command to let the Hebrews go. God hardened his heart, i.e. gave him the ability to regain his free choice and the possibility to choose to disobey God, should he wish to. God did not remove Pharaoh’s free will. On the contrary He returned it to him. According to the Bet Halevy’s perspective God would never remove anyone’s free will, not even to exact retribution.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, in his book Strive for Truth gives a very illuminating perspective of the different levels of free will. He discusses ‘the point of free will.’ This is the point at which a person is still debating the issues in his mind. Rabbi Dessler gives an analogy of two armies in battle. The point of conflict is at the front line. Behind the front lines there is no battle. It is clear to whom the land belongs until the front line changes. We all internally debate the various issues that affect us on a continuous basis. This is where the front line of our free will is located. Issues that we have already decided are not usually reexamined, and therefore we have no free choice over them. We have consigned them to habit. That is what habits are, things that have become second nature that we do not even think about. One can have good habits and bad habits. With respect to habits, it is as if our hearts have been hardened.

A person who constantly reevaluates his or her habits still has the power to change them and therefore retains free will. A person who does not reevaluate his or her habits will not have free will concerning them. He or she will be stuck in a rut of his or her own making.

A person who was raised with good habits that were never reevaluated will not receive the same reward as someone who was not raised the same way, but who acquired these habits out of choice. As Rambam states, “In a place that a penitent stands, a righteous individual cannot stand.” Rambam explains this statement as follows: A person who has tasted sin and keeps away, despite the knowledge of how pleasant it was, is greater than a person who has never tasted sin and therefore does not know what he or she is missing.

Reevaluate Habits Frequently

Another possible explanation for the greatness of a penitent (baal teshuvah) is that a righteous individual, who has been raised that way from youth, has formed habits and does not normally question them. He or she never made a conscious choice. Everything was handed to him or her on a silver platter. A penitent however, has made a conscious, painful choice to alter his or her old habits. This is why it is good to reevaluate one’s actions and receive a reward for re-accepting the commandments afresh, as opposed to just performing them from habit.

For example, a person who was brought up to keep Shabbat and has never really questioned whether to continue to keep Shabbat, has not really made a free-will choice. A person who did not have the same upbringing and made a conscious choice to observe Shabbat laws is therefore on a higher level.

Issues that are still undecided or that we haven’t yet examined are still within the boundaries of our free will. Those that have already been examined and decided are not considered to be within our free will if they are not going to be re-examined. Thus, our point of free will is constantly changing. As we grow or diminish spiritually, so too the scope of our choices changes.

There is a beautiful story that illustrates this idea. Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, famous 8th century Babylonian leader and sage, was visiting a small town and stayed at the local hotel. The staff was unaware of the identity of this illustrious personage and, while they treated him courteously, nobody went out of their way to do the small extras that are usually performed for famous guests. While his room was clean and in perfect order, it did not have the best view and was some distance from the bathroom.

Just before he went to check out of the hotel, he heard a knock on the door. He opened it and to his amazement there was the owner of the establishment in tears. “Rabbi,” he pleaded, “please forgive me for the poor service. I did not know who you were. Please, Rabbi, accept my humble apologies for all the inconveniences that you suffered.”

The Rabbi shook his head in disbelief. “Everything was fine, my good man. Don’t fret. The room was clean. The bed was comfortable. I was satisfied with the service.”

“Rabbi,” the man repeated “if I had known who you were, I would have treated you much better.”

It was the Rabbi’s turn to break down and cry. The hotel owner looked on in amazement. Slowly his sobs dissipated. “Why are you so upset, Rabbi?” he asked in wonderment.

“You taught me something,” answered the sage “I am crying to God for forgiveness, because I should have served Him better previously if I had known then what I now know about His greatness.”

Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven

The Talmud mentions a very famous dictum, ‘Everything is in the hand of heaven except for the fear of heaven.’ The sages of the Talmud learned this principle from the verse in Deuteronomy 10, “What does God want from you? Only for you to fear Him.” The only thing that we have the free will to do is to fear Him. Whether we will be rich or poor, tall or short, handsome or ugly, has already been decided, and is usually beyond our absolute control.

The only thing that is within our total control is our freewill. Decisions on whether to be moral, ethical monotheists are totally within our control.

Quality of Life

Each person makes daily choices regarding the quality of his or her life. We choose our thoughts and behavior. If our choices are elevated thoughts and actions, which include Torah study, trust in the Almighty, love, kindness and good deeds, we will live elevated and fulfilling lives. If we choose hostile, aggressive, depressing and self-pitying thoughts and destructive behavior, our life will be full of pain and contention.

The path of the Torah is a path of life, compassion, mercy, love, happiness and joy. To travel this path one must integrate and internalize the beautiful concepts, which create the elevated and transcendental human being. Many people can quote the right concepts but have difficulty applying them.

In Deuteronomy 30:19 we are commanded to choose life. “I have set before you the blessing and the curse; choose life.” Like any good parent, God wants us to make the right decisions but has empowered us to make them for ourselves. The power of free will gives us superiority over the animal kingdom and enables us to grow in awareness and understanding. However, there are times when we do not utilize this great gift. Instead of responding logically and constructively to various situations, we react instinctively, as if we had no choice in the matter. For example, one might think to him or herself: “Whenever a family member fails to cooperate with my request for help I feel unloved and unloving. I often shout angrily or seethe in silent resentment.” Or one may think that: “Whenever someone criticizes me, I feel like a total failure and brood about it for hours.” We might think that such responses are ‘natural’ and unavoidable and that we cannot help but react as we did. But this implies that we are more like robots than a free-willed human being.

When we give people, places, and things the power to pull us into a state of negativity, then we have at that moment given away our independence and our power of choice. To break these automatic habit patterns it is necessary to identify them and to work at developing the intellectual and emotional honesty that is necessary for growth. Then we regain our free will.

Imagine two escalators in front of you: the first leads upwards literally to an elevated existence; happiness, inspiration, purpose goodness etc. The second leads downwards a slippery slope towards nihilism and self-destruction.

These two escalators are described in the Torah in a number of places including at the beginning of Parashat Re’eh :

See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you listen to the commandments of Hashem, your God … And the curse: If you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem…

Rashi states the principle of ‘mitzvah goreret mitzvah’ and ‘averah goreret averah ’ ‘one good deed leads to another and one bad deed leads to another.’ Deeds are like chain reactions and like slippery slopes.

‘No man is an island’ we are social beings and need positive peer support. We and our children and families need to be part of frameworks: schools, friends, groups of righteous people; communities of good decent people where goodness is a way of life. We need to be involved daily in mitzvot and good deeds and get on the upward bound escalator using our freewill to choose life.